The idea of attending a college specifically to be part of its choir is not one that would occur to many Australians. Within the hallowed halls of Oxford and Cambridge, however, it’s very much the norm. There, chosen students reading anything from mathematics to philosophy to ancient languages put aside their books, don their church garb or concert blacks, and unite in song. The ‘bright young things’ that make up the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge will tour Australia in July as part of Musica Viva’s International Concert Season. Leading them will be the renowned choral director, himself a former ‘bright young thing’, Stephen Layton.
Named one of Gramophone magazine’s ‘20 Greatest Choirs’, the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge for this tour will perform one of the 20th-century’s most beautiful choral works: the 1922 Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir by Frank Martin. The composer regarded it as an intensely personal spiritual expression – it took 40 years for him to allow it to be heard – and it has never left the spotlight since.
Surrounding Martin’s masterpiece is a rich cache of smaller pieces. Of special note are two new works: one by the choir’s Organ Scholar, Owain Park; and another by the Australian Joe Twist, commissioned especially for this tour.
As choral director, Layton is required to be not just conductor but also a nurturer of these young students. As he explains to Fine Music magazine, “the most significant thing is that these young singers, musicians, students, call them what you will, are intellectually very able. Indeed, it’s their intellectual qualities which are at the heart of the music making that we do.
“Their understanding and their ability to do things fast and intuitively and respond to each other, these are the things that I try to nurture, if you like, almost more than the young voices.”
It’s a role that Layton understands from every angle. As a boy he was a chorister at the Winchester Cathedral. As a student he was an organ scholar with the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. And at 19 he founded the mixed-voice choir Polyphony and has been directing choirs ever since. He is insistent, however, that his relationship with choral music is not unique.
“I would say”, he counters, “that it’s something that many have enjoyed in the same way as me because we all come from the same route and this route… is actually to do with cathedrals and to do with university college chapels”.
In fact, there are more than 30 cathedrals in the United Kingdom where children get the experience of singing in choirs every day.
“This is a unique tradition unsurpassed in any country in the world… and so these great cathedrals, which cover the whole of the United Kingdom, are the bastions of preserving the choral music of Tallis and Byrd,” said Layton.
The 12 pieces that the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge will perform in Sydney can all be classified as ‘sacred’ but Layton disagrees with the strict definition of the term. “For me everything is sacred”, he says, “everything I do is sacred whether it be ‘secular’ music or ‘sacred’ music”.
He continues: “I think all music is to the glory of God and I think it’s performed to the same glory whether it is in a church or in a concert hall… The presentation is the same; if the music’s sombre it will be sombre in the concert hall and sombre in the church. If it’s ecstatic, it will be ecstatic in both places”.
There is no doubting his sincerity. Layton answers every question with consideration and conviction. As such, when asked how he feels about performing Steven Stucky’s O sacrum convivium (in memoriam Thomas Tallis) in light of the composer’s recent death (in February this year), his answer feels almost eulogic: “It’s a favourite piece of mine… and I think it’s a really brilliant little choral concerto, so different in the way he sets the text, say, compared to Tallis.
“Where Tallis sets it fairly slow and sedate, Stucky gives us a very fast and slightly American-minimalist kind of thing, I mean there’s a bit of (Steve) Reich in terms of the choral repetitions, or a bit of (Philip) Glass. But I think it’s a really ambitious piece and hugely successful to listen to,” says Layton, adding that it shows Stucky wasn’t just an “American composer who wrote some nice choral pieces”.
Layton believes that Stucky was a real mainstream American symphonic composer, a great orchestrator, who just happened to love a particular period in English music.
“I find myself feeling I have a kindred spirit with this composer because I feel he loves this great music from the Renaissance period in England and wants to celebrate it as an American,” said Layton.
Musical call and answer
The idea of a ‘kindred spirit’ raises the notion that much of a composer’s or a conductor’s work is done alone. They are part of the music making but not of the troupe and as such ask questions that often only they can answer. This goes against what Layton describes as “our primordial feelings from the start of time to do with call and answer, the hunting call, the answering call, those sounds that human beings first made”. He believes that it is these feelings that make the antiphonal effects of Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir (the feature of the Sydney concert) so alluring.
“It’s something deep in our consciousness”, he says, “from time immemorial when we were hunter-gatherers and we needed to call each other and communicate, you know a little shepherd boy making a sound to another shepherd boy looking after some sheep in another pasture. You hear one sound and you respond with another”.
The Frank Martin mass in its antiphonal efect of two groupings is “all about that”, says Layton.
“There are also other influences on the antiphonal aspects of the Martin because there are also the chants of the church. There is always a lot of Gregorian chant-like music and that’s always made up of question and answer, call and response if you like,” he said.
The perpetuity of time and the way humans relate to that is a notion that resonates with Layton’s interspersed programming of Renaissance and Contemporary works. “Well, I always like to blur these things together, the ancient and the modern”, he explains, “because I feel that particularly in this ‘sacred’ music, they’re all striving after one ultimate goal, if you like, and that’s celebrating a spirituality”.
Layton finds it fascinating how we can be confused by composers and imagine that a piece was written very recently or long ago and can often be wrong on both counts.
“Composers these days confuse us by writing neo-type music sometimes. But, also, when you hear the same text being set by diferent composers through the ages, of course that’s a unifier which bring the music together,” he says.
This is no more obvious than in the newest piece in the program, the as yet unnamed work by Australian Joe Twist, commissioned especially for this Musica Viva tour. Layton is cautious when asked about the work: “I have to think carefully about what I can tell you… what I think I can say is that it’s interesting because it uses ancient text, Caedmon’s Hymn but… it then seems to use the sounds and the feelings perhaps of things in Australia”.
“Perhaps it tries to evoke the ancient in Australia and the ancient in England,” he adds.
2016 will see Layton’s choir, Polyphony, turn 30 and himself turn 50. So what does this milestone year mean to him?
“Well, I’m proud”, he says, “to be part of a great choral tradition, to be part of something that seems to be timeless, something that’s rooted in history and something that I can add my part to in trying to shape and help and nurture young people”.
Layton wants to pass on the great choral tradition in which he was brought up and says: “I shall continue to do that until I die, just making sure that I am celebrating the music and sharing it with as many people as possible”.
When asked about his dreams for the next decade, he says: “I guess I would like to keep doing my air miles that I do, visiting as many places as possible, meeting new people and new cultures where I learn from their music and also share my music with them”.
– Nicky Gluch